Death and transfiguration: the music of Celer

A little over a week ago, i began writing a post. Here’s how it began…

At the close of 2008, when i posted my favourite albums of the year, i mentioned that the list was necessarily provisional. Six months and a considerable amount of listening later, i’ve now realised there’s one group that is conspicuous by their absence. At least, they were partially present, in the brief mention i made of Mesoscaphe, their collaboration with Mathieu Ruhlmann that found itself at no. 9 in my top 40 of the year’s releases. They are Celer, a duo made up of husband and wife Dani Baquet-Long and Will Long.

A couple of days after writing those words, tragedy struck: Dani died, following a sudden heart failure. Thus, Will has lost his wife and musical collaborator, and we’ve all lost a fascinating, highly creative and imaginative artist. i recently established contact with Will and Dani, and had hoped to get to know them both a little better, and conduct an interview with them soon for 5:4. So, in the wake of Dani’s abrupt passing, i feel both immense sadness and profound disappointment. As ever, though, the music lives on, serving as an infinitely more eloquent eulogy and testament than words ever could. It’s in that spirit, then, that i’m continuing to write this post.

Celer have been actively releasing their work since 2004, five years that have produced a simply astounding amount of music: no fewer than 37 releases, most of which are full-length albums, alongside a smattering of shorter EPs. But quality and quantity are difficult bed-fellows, which makes it all the more remarkable that so much of Celer’s output is so interesting and engaging. After two false starts—listening to Mesoscaphe last year and a little release in February—i’ve spent the last month listening to almost nothing other than their music, and a dizzying experience it’s been. Where to begin…

Field recordings abound in Celer’s work, subjected to a welter of kinds of scrutiny and obfuscation. One of their earliest releases, 2005’s Ariill, takes its starting point from the piano. It’s softly discernible as if through ice, caught up in its own inner harmonics, with occasional skitters across its surface, like a lowercase drone. Its latter half is yet more icy, barren and shimmering for its first dozen or so minutes, before passing through a sequence of shifting episodes, by turns bell-like, static and, shortly before the end, surprisingly rhythmic. Simple, but endlessly engaging, Ariill was originally released as a CDr (long sold out), but is available (in a slightly modified version) as a free digital download from Archaic Horizon. Be sure to download the accompanying artwork too, which includes a poetic text by Dani, and even a little diagram explaining something of the creative process at work here.

The piano as source returns in their second release from 2005, Bells, where a similar approach can be heard. It lives up to its title; the opening track paints the piano as a metallophone, its chords like a glockenspiel over a mixture of both fixed and slowly-changing resonances. The following two tracks are more convoluted, rich in overtones to the border of noise, but always gentle, with no hard edges, after which comes what sounds like a brief out-take from Ariill, strikingly similar to its first track. But this album’s main achievement, and what was surely a sign of things to come, is the 20-minute final track, “Bellss”. The resonances now sounding as if from behind a cloud, delicately muted, ringing out in æternam, this utterly sublime work is nothing short of an ambient masterpiece. Also originally released as a CDr, Bells too is available as a free download from Rope Swing Cities.

Continents dates from 2006, and was their first release to spill onto more than one CD. It’s also the first to feature the lengthy track titles that are something of a Celer trademark. Its 90 minutes explore a variety of textures, emanating from loops that are overlaid with various processes. They range from the pleasantly tidal, washing to and fro (“La Oroya’s Cantankerous Bells”, “Carpel Tunnels of Love”, “Spring Shields”), to the disquietingly ominous, hovering with menace (“Slack Tree Diagrams”, “Chernobyl Hearts and Multiple Throats”), to the overtly rich and strident (“Bereft Oversight” and the wonderfully-named “Ceramic Foam Party”), with just a single foray into highly rhythmic and choppy textures in the excellent “The Ex Hypthesi Dreams of Populous Clouds”. For all its elements of stasis and drift, the breadth of imagination and gorgeous sound-worlds they create make it a compelling album. While the original handmade 2CDr release is long sold out, a single CD version (still handmade, but omitting two tracks) can be bought from Unlabel, while the complete release is now available as a download from Celer’s slowly expanding Bandcamp site, where you can also preview all of the tracks in their entirety, with downloads available in pretty much all formats, both lossless and lossy.

Another double album from 2006, this time lasting over 140 minutes, is Sunlir/Scols. The territory and processes it explores, derived from echoing loops, is not dissimilar to that on Continents, with similar contrasts of light and shade. On the Sunlir half, it’s actually the most-restrained pieces (“3_1”, “4_1” and “8_10”) that stand out most, and the sudden note of dissonance with the penultimate track “9_7” is genuinely unnerving. Scols continues in similar vein, containing both the weakest and the strongest tracks of this dual release. “4_10” is the low point, rather amorphous and with its reverb too intrusive, whereas “7_4”, the highlight of the album, blurts out its scintillating bursts revealing new overtones and aftershocks each time, its timbre always being remade. For the rest, melancholia seems to pervade many of the tracks; “5_6” sounds uncertain for all its major assertions, while “8_5” is Celer at their most funereal, tolling out a death knell atop an immovable sonic ground. Once again, the original release is sold out; Sunlir was for a time available from Brian Grainger’s now defunct Expanding Electronic Diversity. Now, though, both halves—now separated, and with their functional track titles lavishly re-written—can be heard and bought from the Bandcamp site (Sunlir/Scols.

2007 brought a flood of output: 12 releases no less. Of these, Cantus Libres is particularly striking, taking Arvo Pärt’s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten as its starting point. This is rather brave, as Pärt’s composition is rightfully one of his most-loved, a gorgeous but delicate blend of sadness and simplicity. Celer’s take is likewise straightforward, forming tapestries of surges, from which an occasionally discordant froth emerges (this happens especially powerfully about 10½ minutes into the opening track). Six tracks exploring this idea, each lasting around 20 minutes, sounds like a recipe for, if not disaster, then certainly boredom, and the album doesn’t entirely succeed to avoid this. Tracks 3 and 4 seem to lack a sense of purpose, the textures of the former sounding relatively uncharacterised, and the structure/dynamics of the latter rather too unchanging. But the rest is superb; i’ve mentioned the first track, with its nicely timed change in tonality halfway through. The opening of track 2 is the most magical moment on the album, Pärt’s deep bell resounding through the texture, causing it to ripple and flex, leading to perhaps the most meditative of the pieces, and also the one most laden with melancholy. Track 5, by contrast, is almost aggressive, its surges sounding at times like ambient growls, surly and unyielding, while the final track allows a more positive tone to predominate, rich and forceful. Each track concludes with a lengthy silence, bestowing a fitting sense of reverence to the album. The original 2CDr—once again—is no longer available, but the album has been added to the Bandcamp site in the last few days, available here.

Returning to free releases, Red Seals is a 2-track, hour-long work, exploring “the effects of the red tide upon the coastline of the Pacific Ocean”. It opens with “Brackish Nagas Too Low In The River”, which toys briefly with surface foam, before plunging into genuinely oceanic waters, each successive chord effusive and full-bodied. Even more outstanding, though, is the second track, “Surly and Chaparral”, redolent (in both title and content) of some of Andrew Liles‘ experiments, but infinitely more vast. Grand and spacious, it’s gentle metallic edge makes each surging wave shimmer and shudder, enveloping the listener in a spectacularly effulgent display. This is another Celer masterpiece, delicious and forbidding, granite-like and intoxicating; you can—and you should—grab Red Seals, either at Archaic Horizon, but better (and faster), for a variety of formats/bit-rates download it at the heInternet Archivere.

2007 also saw arguably Celer’s most unusual album, Sieline. It’s mysterious, but in a sense wholly different from the rest of their output. The seven lengthy tracks (originally released on four mini CDrs housed in handmade pyramids), don’t so much start as inveigle themselves into the space—for example, the opener, “Slowly wire circles in the drinking smiles, weaving copper plants”, takes a full three minutes to fade in, whereupon its gentle tones begin to buzz and amuse themselves. This is small-scale stuff, Celer in chamber music mode, and against everything else they’ve released, it’s a shocking, even fiercely ascetic, demeanour. i admit it took me time and repeated listenings to begin to penetrate this album, and start to find the intricate complexities that are at the heart of such minimal expression. Its delicacy and courageous time-taking work to its advantage, making some of the textural shifts profoundly effective, such as the movement from soft noise and whirrings to a deep bass drone a little over halfway through the second piece, “Sheets slipping with patient patios; the sun crawling under the beds”. Make of such titles what you will; i find them occupying a tangential, playful relationship to the sound (rather like Matt Waldron’s accompanying notes for his irr. app. (ext.) releases, or the spurious texts of The Hafler Trio), not so much explaining or clarifying the music, as inviting the listener to a certain kind of mindset, teasing the imagination. It requires an open mind, good speakers(!) and above all patience, all of which will be more greatly rewarded than one might think at first. i’ll say it again; this is a courageous album, proving that Celer’s interests are by no means limited to conventional ambient music, and that they have no intention of merely repeating their past work. It’s available to hear and download from Bandcamp.

Last year added a further half dozen albums to their oeuvre, all of them showing a deepening maturity and understanding of their craft. Cursory Asperses is a Celer rarety, a single, hour-long track, that morphs and evolves organically, containing some of their most beautiful music. One can only hope this becomes available again soon, as the CDs—released on the Japanese SlowFlowRec label—are regrettably (but unsurprisingly) all sold out. Also currently unavailable, and in no less urgent need of reissuing, is I Love You So Much I Can’t Even Title This (The Light That Never Goes Out Went Out), three tracks continuing the idea of Cantus Libres, this time from field recordings of Samuel Barber’s music (the well-known Adagio for Strings can be heard at times), performed at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. As the title suggests, this goes beyond mere melancholy and wistfulness into genuinely ineffable territory, and as such the music is difficult to write about. Best just to bathe in it.

Most of the remainder of last year’s releases are still available, many from the excellent Infraction Records. Of these, i’d single out Nacreous Clouds, a work of complex textures that have clearly been carefully sculpted into their final form. The fleeting nature of clouds—although the nacreous variety often appears not to be moving—is in part suggested by the reduction of the material into relatively miniature durations, ranging from around five minutes to a mere nine seconds. As such, it’s the kind of album that works well either played straight through or in shuffle mode, each little piece a self-contained gem in its own right. The CD is no longer available from label and/OAR, but Infraction still has some copies left, so act quickly. Tracks i particularly like: “Peak Pressure” applies mellifluous chords over deep, intoning tones, together forming a heady combination. Yet more deep, dense and distant is “Swarms of Orange”, its organ-like tones submerged and slow-moving. A different kind of stasis is heard in “Ice Deserts Over Ross Island” where the overtones of a single chord wax and wane. One of the shorter tracks, “Blind Darsan” finds temporary consonances within its strange, shifting voices, while “Missed Language” is almost the reverse, pausing on high, beating pitches. And last, “Missed Language”, a tense and difficult miniature, always on-edge, fragile and nervous.

and so to 2009, the first half of which has brought forth eight titles already. Three of these are relatively short (the ongoing Four Pieces series), while most of the rest continue Celer’s penchant for lengthier deliberations. They continue to explore field recordings, and recent release Breeze of Roses declares the following about its sources: “Original acoustic recordings of live cello and mini piano made inside a small docked sailboat in Attersee, Austria in 2005. Mixed with field recordings of Lake Attersee and processed in 2009”. All very specific, but to an extent Breeze of Roses distills these sources into their more basic qualities, the resultant material often sounding close (at times, even a little claustrophobic), but informed by the cello’s warmth and illuminated by the toy piano brightness. Having said that, the toy piano finds itself in a number of guises; often, it resembles a resonating gong; elsewhere it is stretched out into an infinitely long chime. It has an almost ritualistic, liturgical feel to it, like immobile gamelan music; over 50 minutes it makes for an especially intense, focused experience. It’s in a limited edition of 250, so scurry over to Dragon’s Eye Recordings to get hold of a copy, or in the UK, go to Smallfish Records.

All of which only begins to scratch the surface of Celer’s output, a great deal of which i haven’t spoken of here (despite the temptation), indeed half of which i haven’t yet heard yet, as they’re not currently available anywhere. Such is the joy and the frustration of their music: that most of it has been released in very limited editions, now impossible to find, like rare and precious artefacts. Ambient music is surely the most abused form of music, attracting more mediocre and downright lamentable efforts than any other, doing little more than repeat tired clichés and worn-out ideas. Not so with Celer; music of such consistent interest and quality is rare, demanding attention.

i started this article full of fascination for Celer’s music, delighted to have engaged with it (at last), excited about what discoveries lay ahead, and happy at the prospect of getting to know its creators. It’s sad indeed to be ending the article with so much transfigured, and one’s heart so much heavier, in the wake of Dani’s untimely passing; truly, the light that never goes out went out. But the legacy remains, and i sincerely hope that through this death and transfiguration, Will Long will find the urge to create undiminished, and continue to take his listeners into new sonic territories. A more fitting tribute to Dani i can’t imagine.


Posted on by 5:4 in Commemorations, Featured Artists
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2 Responses to Death and transfiguration: the music of Celer

  1. Anonymous

    thank you thank you thank you
    i had never heard them,
    until tonight…….
    and now i feel as if i've
    known their music forever…

  2. Pingback: New CD: Triptych, May/July 2009 | 5:4

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